Frye and Helen Kemp on A. Y. Jackson


Further to Michael’s post, Frye and Helen on Jackson in the Correspondence.

Canadian landscape painting has to deal with a sharp hard light and solid blocks of clear colour: consequently a tendency to conventionalize outlines has been inherent in it from the first. Thomson, being interested in problems of linear distance and in the breaking up of light which they suggest, dodged this tendency, but it is strong in Jackson and Emily Carr, and of course far stronger in Lawren Harris, who saved himself from dropping into a facile formula (like Rockwell Kent) by turning to out-and-out abstract painting. (CW 12, 12)

The Group of Seven felt that they were among the first to look at Canada directly, and much of their painting was based on the principle of confronting the eye with the landscape. This made a good deal of their work approach the flat and posterish, but that was a risk they were ready to take. Jackson, Lismer, and Harris all found this formula exhaustible, and have all developed away from it. Thomson and Emily Carr represent a more conscious penetration of the landscape: they seem to try to find a centre of rhythm deep within their subject and expand from there. Milne combines these techniques in a way that is apt to confuse people who look at him for the first time. (CW 12, 73)

I am, of course, deeply appreciative of the honour that Carleton University has done me. It is particularly an honour to receive this degree in the company of Mr. A.Y. Jackson, as well as a great pleasure, because Mr. Jackson is an old friend. (CW 12, 272)

Writers don’t interpret national characters; they create them. But what they create is a series of individual things, characters in novels, images in poems, landscapes in pictures. Types and distinctive qualities are second-hand conventions. If you see what you think is a typical Englishman, it’s a hundred to one that you’ve got your notion of a typical Englishman from your second-hand reading. It is only in satire that types are properly used: a typical Englishman can exist only in such figures as Low’s Colonel Blimp. If you look at Mr. Jackson’s paintings, you will see a most impressive pictorial survey of Canada: pictures of Georgian Bay and Lake Superior, pictures of the Quebec Laurentians, pictures of Great Bear Lake and the Mackenzie River. What you will not see is a typically Canadian landscape: no such place exists. In fiction too, there is nothing typically Canadian, and Canada would not be a very interesting place to live in if there were. Only the outsider to a country finds characters or patterns of behaviour that are seriously typical. Maria Chapdelaine has something of this typifying quality, but then Maria Chapdelaine is a tourist’s novel. (CW 12, 275)

If we subsidize our culture properly, we are certain to encourage a good deal that will be described by a good many people as everything from longhair to filthy. If you think that society has outgrown such narrow-mindedness, I would call your attention to the fact that Canada, like all other countries, has laws of book censorship that no serious student of literature can possibly have the slightest respect for. Or you might ask Mr. Jackson about some of the early reviews of Group of Seven exhibitions. (CW 12, 278)

As a rule, when associations are formed by youthful artists, they break up as the styles of the artists composing them become more individual. But the Group of Seven, who did so much to revitalize Canadian painting in the ‘20s and later of this century, still retain some of the characteristics of a group. Seven is a sacred number, and the identity of the seventh, like the light of the seventh star of the Pleiades, has fluctuated somewhat, attached to different painters at different times. But the permanent six, of whom four are still with us, have many qualities in common, both as painters and in fields outside painting. For one thing, they are, for painters, unusually articulate in words. J.E.H. MacDonald and Lawren Harris wrote poetry; Harris, as this book shows, wrote also a great deal of critical prose; A.Y. Jackson produced a most entertaining autobiography; Arthur Lismer, through his work as educator and lecturer, would still be one of the greatest names in the history of Canadian art even if he had never painted a canvas. For another, they shared certain intellectual interests. They felt themselves part of the movement towards the direct imaginative confrontation with the North American landscape which, for them, began in literature with Thoreau and Whitman. Out of this developed an interest for which the word theosophical would not be too misleading if understood, not in any sectarian sense, but as meaning a commitment to painting as a way of life, or, perhaps better, as a sacramental activity expressing a faith, and so analogous to the practising of a religion. This is a Romantic view, following the tradition that begins in English poetry with Wordsworth. While the Group of Seven were most active, Romanticism was going out of fashion elsewhere. But the nineteen-sixties is once again a Romantic period, in fact almost oppressively so, so it seems a good time to see such an achievement as that of Lawren Harris in better perspective. (CW 12, 398–9)

Canadian painting began with documentary painters like Krieghoff and Paul Kane, who may have kept an eye on the European market but were nevertheless keen observers of what was around them. Group of Seven painting, along with that of Thomson and Emily Carr, was documentary painting to an unusual degree, almost an imaginative mapping and survey of the remoter parts of the country; and we have also the extensive “war records” of painting from both wars. What Jackson and Thomson did for landscape, Riopelle and Pellan and their contemporaries are doing for the Cartesian culture that we live in now. Canadian film has always been remarkable for its sensitive documentary feeling, applied to everything from Eskimo and Indian life to the urban cultures of Toronto and Montreal. (CW 12, 447)

Speaking of painting, the British painter and writer Wyndham Lewis, who spent some years in Canada during the Second World War, makes this comment about A.Y. Jackson, one of the twentieth-century Group of Seven landscape painters, perhaps with an underlying allusion to the Carman poem already cited: “Jackson is no man to go gathering nuts in May. He has no wish to be seduced every Spring when the sap rises–neither he nor nature are often shown in these compromising moods. There is something of Ahab in him: the long white contours of the Laurentian Mountains in mid-winter are his elusive leviathan.” (CW 12, 484)

In my first term as an undergraduate in Victoria College in the fall of 1929, I took a course in English literature from John D. Robins. In those days any references to contemporary culture had to be bootlegged into lectures by digressions, and in one such digression Robins told us that there was an Art Gallery in Toronto, that a very lively movement in Canadian painting was being displayed there, and that it was an important part of our education, coming as most of us did from small towns outside Toronto, to get in touch with it. The response, as I recall, was very straggly, at least at first. True, the painters had names like Harris, Thomson, Jackson, and Macdonald–very reassuring names for timid and immature Wasps. But still they were “modern,” and one never knew where that might lead. (CW 12, 541)

When talking to students in the gallery about painting, he [Arthur Lismer] would keep drawing rapid sketches, for which he had an extraordinary facility, recalling some painters of an older generation–Charles W. Jeffreys, for example–who used to illustrate newspapers in the days when photography was still cumbersome. He was prodigal with such sketches, and would entertain parties with them: Robins had a large collection of drawings done at Arts and Letters Club luncheons, and I remember a brilliant caricature of A.Y. Jackson done with a diamond on a windowpane in Jackson’s house in Manotick. He did not integrate this skill with his landscape painting, and doubtless the conventions of twentieth-century painting did not allow him to do so. But the remark often made about Group of Seven painters, that their sketches tend to be livelier than their finished paintings, was especially true of him. He was the opposite of monumental: he caught things in process and as it were in midair: things sprang into life wherever he was. (CW 12, 542)

In 1930, again, the Depression settled into Canadian life, and the Depression was also a hampering and delaying influence on culture. There was not only the difficulty of getting books and pictures marketed (A.Y. Jackson remarked to me some time before his death that he still had guilt feelings when a picture of his sold for more than thirty‑five dollars), but a theory of culture developed which was a modified form of mercantilism. According to it the creative person was to produce the raw material of his experience as part of an attempt to affect the ownership of production. (CW 12, 550)

At the same time he was active in the golden age of the Arts and Letters Club, and was a friend of and helped publicize the Group of Seven painters, at that time struggling for recognition. He was never much attracted to the theosophical interests of Lawren Harris or Jackson, and perhaps for that reason he was able to explain to the Canadian public what these painters were up to more articulately than they did. (CW 12, 635)

Dad left today & we took him down to the station in the afternoon.  He seems quite cheerful.  A.Y. Jackson had the seat in front of him & said the Art Gallery had an option on two Miller Brittains (I don’t know how he spells it).  Jackson is a nervous man: made enough gestures telling me this to represent the confusion of tongues at Babel.  (CW 8, 243)

Bill [Howard] had spent the day pouring concrete & was getting ready for the Arts & Letters Club monthly dinner.  Helen decided I’d had enough family & that I should go to it, so I did, but Ned [Pratt] had previously called to offer me a drink beforehand, & as at that time I hadn’t thought of going I had to pass it up.  The dinner was all right except that I didn’t know many people: R.A. Daly, Gordon Davies, George Pepper, A.Y. Jackson were the people I talked to, besides John Coulter, who wanted to beef about a bad review Doris [Mosdell] had given his play in the Forum. (CW 8, 334)

we went into the tea for Paraskeva Clark’s exhibition—good exhibition it is too.  Paraskeva was charming.  Murray Adaskin has a job in music at Saskatchewan, which will give him time to compose.  He’s a very serious composer, evidently: his recommendations for the job included letters from Milhaud and Stravinsky.  I told him about Bentley & his Gabriel Fauré society.  John Hall has had pneumonia, & looks it.  I talked to the Ignatieffs, to Art Moore, to A.Y.Jackson (who I think hears very little of what one says) to Douglas Duncan, Mrs. Alford (I hear that the second Mrs. Alford is now leaving John A.) and others.  It was hard work: I hate those affairs.  (CW 8, 480)

The Canadian exhibit, in the Travel and Transport building, is disappointing.  I could have arranged a better one myself.  All the other countries, even Italy, concentrate on the beautiful workmanship done in the country.  But ours is apparently paid for by the C.P.R., and is merely the usual tripe about hotels and parks and opportunities for American investors.  The exhibit consists of a few stuffed animals, a few pickled apples, specimens of wheat, chunks of ore‑bearing rocks (as the prospector said: “Speaking of ores, how’s your wife?”) and the largest map in the world on the walls, whose size did not impress me.  It would not be difficult to make a bigger one.  Taking a hint from the Irish, the odd Lawren Harris or A.Y. Jackson would be a good idea, and what with all the wonder of carved totem poles, the hooked rugs of Labrador, the spinning‑wheels and window blinds of old Quebec, the wonderful work done in the Blind Institute at Brantford, Ukrainian costumes, Indian moccasins and baskets, examples of minerals instead of pieces of rock, exhibits from Art Schools, pictures of Norma Shearer, Mary Pickford and Marie Dressler to amuse the natives, miniature models, such as Alaska had, of picturesque spots along the railways‑‑I think even I could do better than to stuff a wildcat and label it “Canada Lynx.”  There was one Mountie there, bored and hot.


Do you remember—that beautiful night when she [Yvonne Williams] had the party in Jackson’s studio and they played Ravel on the gramophone and showed Jackson’s paintings. And you and I looked out and saw the house at the back of the building transformed with lamps lighting the darkness. There was an unearthly glow in the sky, and a gentle snow falling—it turned to slush immediately. But I was bursting with liking the party so much, and you so much, and having both together. (Frye–Kemp Correspondence, 4 February 1935)

I agree with you about Canadian paintings—but that is exactly what the Seven tried to do, and what all the little people who copied them don’t realize. The work of [J.E.H.] MacDonald and Lismer and Thomson and Jackson is a definite contribution to painting, of a large order. But for the rest, I think a new impulse is needed, and how it is to come, I’m not quite certain. (Frye Kemp Correspondence, 3 June 1935)

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